Friday, 27 February 2009

Experiments as Art

Experiment: a test, trial, or tentative procedure; an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle, supposition, etc.

Experimentation is at the very heart of artistic activity. The physical processes of putting ideas to the test through formal and material interaction lead to new discoveries and greater understanding. This is a major reason why creative makers “make” (Homo Faber). It also distinguishes what artists do from the solely cognitive processes of pure philosophical enquiry. Our theories are tested in “Fact” and new facts further inform our theories.

However, experimentation alone does not necessarily produce art (otherwise, of course, all experiments would be art). As with all experiments the outcome, its context and above all how this is interpreted is of primary importance. The results of the experiment or the actual apparatus of the experiment (take for example the work of Steven Pippin) need to be seen to reflect on other areas of experience ie they need to be able to be interpreted and understood in a wider context than that of the experiment itself.

Experiments performed with the intention of “observing a reaction” may lead to conclusions but these outcomes and the facts or observations which arise do not necessarily in themselves constitute art (in fact they are more likely to be interpreted as anthropological or psychological data). For example, setting up a experiment with the intention of observing viewers reactions to an event may well lead to varied and interesting reactions, but the process needs to articulate something beyond the pure facts of the process to be interesting as an artwork.


Vivian Oblivion said...

What do you think about the claim (Balazs, Benjamin) that some works of art are only discernible in a later epoch? So, for instance, experiments in animation by Oskar Fishninger or Lotte Reiniger were not "successful" in their time because its was in fact not their time. Now these works are the archeology of animation.

This essay ends at a productive point of departure. Experiments specifically undertaken to affect viewers must "articulate something beyond the pure facts of the process to be interesting as an artwork." What is that something? Where is the line between (take again Fischinger and to a lesser extent Reiniger) process and articulations of somethings?

J. Hamlyn said...

In relation to work only being discernible in later epochs, yes I'd agree this can often be the case - indeed it was the case with Mozart himself, who was regarded as rather prissy in his own day. It's very a precarious situation though. Orwell is quite good on this:

“in reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good'. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that - for instance - Warwick deepening is' bad'. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index of majority opinion.”

John Berger also wrote about this specific issue. I quoted him right at the end of my post on Raymond Moore:

“ is not timeless and eternal. Great works survive their period, but that is not to say that they do not die. After that period they live again by virtue of a sort of resurrection. This after-life, however, is never the same intense, committed thing as their original life... If this is true, one can better understand the horrific absurdity of artists consciously working for the future - ‘ I shall only be properly appreciated in 100 years’ time.’... We must recognise that there is such a thing as the natural death of a work of art. Nor is it morbidity that makes me say this is a recognition we should celebrate. Only if we recognise the mortality of art shall we cease to stand in such superstitious awe of it – only then shall we consider art expendable and so have the courage to risk using it for our own immediate, urgent, only important purposes.”

J. Hamlyn said...

Or, talking of drawing lines - Norman McLaren:

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